Innovate or Die

Matt Wilcox addresses the Chief Strategy Officer Summit on Friday May 24










Marketing Lesson From

Birds Wearing Funny Hats

(About my upcoming presentation at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit)

Early in the 1980s, biologist Nancy Burley fastened tiny hats atop the heads of zebra finches. It soon became clear that the female finches really dug the males with red hats. Males with other-colored hats or no hat at all could hardly compete. Worst off were the males in green hats, from whom the females pretty much fled.

Ornithological implications aside—what moved Burley to try this in the first place is its own story—there is a marketing lesson here. The slickest, most creative sales pitch cannot sell green to a market with its heart set on red. Moreover, there is no telling when a capricious market might change its mind and want blue.

But although the finches were doomed to make do with the color Burley bestowed upon them … you, by contrast, can change your hat.

If the market wants red, you can shed green and deliver red. Even better, you can deliver red in a way no one has ever delivered red before and take the market by storm. If the market changes its mind and wants blue, you can deliver blue.

Trouble is, most of us won’t.

Which raises the question, why the heck not?

Permit me to suggest some possible reasons:

It’s not easy predicting the future. In 1962, Decca Records executive Dick Rowe dismissed an unknown band calling itself The Beatles. “Guitar groups are on the way out,” he said. Lest we be smug, who could have known just a few years ago that texting would overtake speaking as the primary use of a phone?

Stubbornness. No one is immune. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz bought out his stubborn partners so the company could segue from roasting alone to brewing and selling drinks by the cup. Yet Schultz himself stubbornly refused to accede to loud-and-clear customer demand for lattes made with nonfat milk. He capitulated only after Starbucks lost untold business to more flexible competitors.

Failure to hear. When you’re convinced you’re right, it’s easy to make data appear to mean what you want it to mean. Politicians make an art of it. Throw a rock and you’ll hit 20—on either side of the aisle—who use the same data to support opposing points of view.

Institutionalized lack of nimbleness. This may come in the form of leadership that is slow to take action. It may also come in the form of encumbrances not easily shed. Consider a vertical such as a bookstore or video rental chain that moves to an online model, leaving an established company saddled with suddenly obsolete real estate and inventory.

Limited resources. Change is costly, and some companies lack the funds. But some refuse to invest them, perhaps overlooking the fact that going out of business can cost a good deal more than innovating.

Let’s be fair. These and other traits can be listed under “Being Human.” But the knowledge that you are human is small consolation when your company falls behind or goes out of business.

But—good news—you’re not a zebra finch. You can change your hat for the right color. All it takes is staying a beat ahead of the hat-demand curve.

How? Funny you should ask. That’s what I’m speaking about on May 24 at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit in San Francisco. You should attend! If you can’t make it, all is not lost. I’ll share highlights from my presentation in an upcoming post.


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